PUBLISHED: 11:35 AM on Wednesday, March 15, 2006
School of dance
Students learn the steps with ballroom classes

Photo by Amanda Gragert
  Isidor LeBlanc and Miranda Guizio dance the Tango at Glacier Valley School. Students will show off their skills at a fund-raiser for arts education Saturday, March 18.
T - A - N - G - O.

With each step, students at Glacier Valley School in Juneau are learning ballroom dancing and a few other things along the way.

Students in grades third through fifth are wrapping up a 10-week program where they learn ballroom dancing and etiquette.

Music teacher and librarian Lorrie Heagy said she got the idea for the program after watching "Mad Hot Ballroom."The documentary is about students of several New York City elementary schools learning ballroom dance and competing.

Heagy shared her idea with physical education teacher Susan Denton, and the two approached Shane Wirtz about teaching dance to the students.

"He was a little skeptical," Denton said.

Wirtz said he has been a ballroom dancer since he was 19 and has taught across the United States and now teaches at University of Alaska Southeast.

"I've always been a pretty rhythmic guy. I was tired of doing freestyle, so when I was 19 I applied to be a dance instructor. I've enjoyed it ever since," Wirtz said. "I make it fun. If you have fun then you're ahead of the game."

Denton said students have reacted positively toward the dancing program, which is held during P.E. twice a week.

"Some of these kids are getting more exercise than I've seen them move," Denton said."The way we approach it through academics. When they do the Tango, we teach them to step as each letter is said. They're getting literacy skills and it's being reinforced over and over again."

Photo by Amanda Gragert
  Taytum Robinson spins around with dance partner David Stephens.
Denton said she has seen a change in a particular student who had been getting trouble for his behavior.

"During this program this kid's behavior has turned 180 degrees and it's rubbed off into regular P.E.," Denton said. "I was telling him how proud I was of him and asked him what the difference was. He pondered for a minute and said, 'I think it started when we started to dance.' We've had several of those moments. Those experiences are really powerful, and a lot of kids have found a niche they haven't been able to find before."

Heagy said students also are learning social skills and manners by learning to give compliments and thank fellow students after dancing.

Photo by Amanda Gragert
  Artist in residence Shane Wirtz dances Glacier Valley School while students warm up with Swing dancing during their physical education class. Students just finished a 10-week ballroom dancing program taught by Wirtz.
"They've really gone with it, and they've been so nice about it," Heagy said.

Students have also been taught about proper dancing attire, Wirtz said. Glacier Valley teacher Geoffrey Wyatt brought about 100 silk ties for boys to wear while dancing.

"The first day I required them to wear a tie during class, but Lorrie thought we should give them a choice. I think that first day we offered it by choice, all but three boys grabbed one," Wirtz said. "The boys sometimes wear collared shirts on dance day because they know it looks nice. Sometimes the girls wear dresses or skirts because they like to see them twirl."

Wirtz is serves as artist in residence at the school, which is funded by a grant from the Rasmusson Foundation and the Alaska State Council of the Arts.

Wirtz said the students were excited about learning to dance and also practice their skills at home.

"It makes your heart sing just watching them," Wirtz said.

Photo by Amanda Gragert
  Siosi Tupou and Ryan Mayer take a trip around the dance floor during P.E. class.
Heart and Sole, a fund-raiser for Glacier Valley School's arts education programs, will feature students who have been learning to dance. The event will be Saturday, March 18, at Glacier Valley Gym. A dance workshop by Wirtz will be held from 6-7 p.m. and a dance and dessert auction will be held from 7-8:30 p.m. with music by Thunder Mountain Big Band. Cost is $5 for individuals and $15 per family. Glacier Valley students will be featured at the event.

"Students will get a chance to demonstrate their skills," Wirtz said.

Denton said she hopes parents will come to see what their children have been learning.

"The kids cheer each other on and it's really fun to watch them work together. We've had parents come in during school and watch, and parents have been practicing with the kids at home and asking about taking lessons with their kids," Denton said.

Heagy said she would like to see all Juneau elementary schools teach ballroom dancing.

"We're trying to make it a district wide program so everyone has some common ground going into junior high," Heagy said.

Denton agrees and said the students learning dancing skills this year know the importance of what they're being taught.

"There are others who are very interested in this being around to all the kids," Denton said.

"Glacier Valley kids feel very special that they've gotten to do this, and they have a sense of pride in being part of this."